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Powerless? iPhone Provides a Light

My officemate Jeff Carlson confessed to me the other day that he uses his iPhone like a flashlight. Burning the midnight – or 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. or even 4 a.m. – oil to finish books and other projects in recent weeks, he often creeps to bed after his wife is long settled in. Tap the Home button and you have enough light to find your way.

I discovered the iPhone can give off heat and light, too, in the form of knowledge and communication during a brief outage this evening. My neighborhood in Seattle, Montlake, seems to have particularly flaky power lines and substations. I can think of a dozen hour-or-longer outages in the last decade that fell outside of storms. A tree gave up the ghost with no wind or rain in sight one night; the rest are generally mysteries.

I cursed the darkness briefly, before my wife reminded me that our toddler and infant needed my steadfast moral support. Then I got practical: I pulled out my iPhone, and realized, hey, as long as there is a charge and power to the cell data network – towers often have battery backups and sometimes generators – I can reach the outside world.

Sure enough, I pulled up the Seattle City Light Web page for outages via a Google search, and called. (Brief off-topic rant: When you call outside extended working hours, you can report an outage with your phone number. Despite punching in my number, unchanged for about 15 years, and which is listed in directories, I was shunted to talk to a representative. Of which there was none, because it was after hours. The only other option was to call an emergency reporting line, which was busy. The outage reporting line blithely reported no outages during the 75 juiceless minutes.)

The ability to have Internet access when there’s no power is a pretty remarkable thing. I know that smartphone users have had this ability for years, but after working with one of the most advanced BlackBerry phones a few days ago and finding that it had one of the worst portable browsers I’ve ever used – practically unusable – I don’t think many people have had the joy of a robust browser.

In major disasters or outages, cell towers and networks will go down, too, but it’s a nice option in these less-critical disruptions.

Of course, utilities could make use of smartphones and cell technology to allow customers to use location-based information supplied by cell carriers to reach a page when there’s an outage and have their location reported when they click a report button. That requires coordination with carriers, but some of the pieces are place for the E911 system already.

Power utilities are mostly living in the 19th century. They know there’s an outage when customers call. They find the problem by driving around. They fix the problem by going to a substation and flipping giant switches. The 21st century is finally seeing the delivery of the smart grid, something I’ve been talking about with utilities for the last couple of years, as broadband over powerline and via Wi-Fi start to have a confluence with smart-grid technology. With the smart grid, the utility has remote cameras on poles, continuous monitoring, and remote control. It’s an especially appealing vision tonight.

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